Big issues in Gardiner’s reelection bid in 45th Ward are crime, development — and Gardiner himself

Ald. Jim Gardiner faces five contenders in the Northwest Side ward — and a string of scandals. While the first term incumbent has name recognition, it’s not necessarily the kind of recognition a candidate wants among potential voters.

SHARE Big issues in Gardiner’s reelection bid in 45th Ward are crime, development — and Gardiner himself
45th Ward candidates (from left) Ald. Jim Gardiner, James Suh, Megan Mathias, Marija Tomic, Susanna Ernst and Ana Santoyo participate in a forum at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park in February.

Candidates in the 45th Ward (from left) Ald. Jim Gardiner, James Suh, Megan Mathias, Marija Tomic, Susanna Ernst and Ana Santoyo participate in a forum at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park earlier this month. Public safety and economic development are key issues, but Gardiner’s profane text messages and complaints from residents whom he deems enemies are also top of mind for voters.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

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Incumbent Ald. Jim Gardiner would seem to have a relatively easy path to a second term representing the 45th Ward.

He can tout the start of several stalled, multimillion-dollar developments and his status as one of the loudest critics of Mayor Lori Lightfoot on the City Council — all popular stances in one of the city’s most conservative wards.

Four years ago, Gardiner ousted a two-term incumbent without a run-off, pulling in 51% of the vote in the February election. This year, ward boundaries have been drawn to add parts of the Wildwood and Edgebrook neighborhoods, considered more conservative and favorable to the firefighter’s prospects.

But the Feb. 28 election will likely be a test of whether voters associate Gardiner with construction cranes at the ward’s Six Corners intersection, or if they better recall a string of scandals that have plagued him since taking office.

Gardiner has been sued by a construction worker who said the City Council member had him arrested after he found a cellphone belonging to a ward worker. That worker, Charles Sikanich, has been indicted for trying to sell a machine gun while on city time.

And a community news website that has made Gardiner a frequent target published leaked text messages that showed Gardiner using profane, offensive and misogynistic language to describe City Council peers, their staff or others — and threatening to withhold ward services from residents he deemed enemies.

The messages apparently prompted interest from the FBI, which is investigating Gardiner.

Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th) participates in a forum at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park on Feb. 2.

Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th) participates in a forum at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park on Feb. 2.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The City Council rookie faces a field of five challengers, and while he has name recognition, it’s not necessarily the kind of recognition a candidate wants among potential voters.

“I really only know one candidate, and that’s Gardiner. But when I hear things in the news about him, it’s generally negative,” said resident Brian McGowan as he dropped off mail at the Jefferson Park Post Office branch.

“But I haven’t noticed anything about services or businesses leaving the ward. But we are going to be doing our research on the other candidates.”

The challengers are:

  • Susanna Ernst, a community activist and marketing consultant who has led historic preservation efforts in her Jefferson Park neighborhood 
  • Megan Mathias, a lawyer who began campaigning roughly two years ago and has garnered endorsements from a handful of local politicians
  • Ana Santoyo, a community organizer who has centered her campaign on class struggle
  • James Suh, a local businessman who raised his profile by opposing Gardiner’s decision to spike a development plan at the busy — but then unoccupied — Six Corners intersection 
  • Marija Tomic, who got an early boost to her campaign by publicizing video of Gardiner harassing volunteers collecting signatures to get her on the ballot.
City Council candidate Megan Mathias speaks at a 45th Ward forum at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park earlier this month.

City Council candidate Megan Mathias speaks at a 45th Ward forum at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park earlier this month.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Several hundred residents braved sub-zero wind chills to attend a recent candidate forum at Jefferson Park’s Copernicus Center, where Gardiner’s opponents managed to slip references to temperament, character and the ability to work with diverse groups into nearly every response.

Suh had the most pointed gibe of the night when asked which of the other five candidates he would support.

“Not the one that’s under federal investigation,” Suh said, drawing laughs and “ooohs” from the crowd.

Candidate James Suh speaks at a 45th Ward forum at the Copernicus Center earlier this month.

Candidate James Suh speaks at a 45th Ward forum at the Copernicus Center earlier this month.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

But the candidates have important differences in their plans for key issues in the ward, including public safety and economic development.

The ward, which has some of the lowest crime rates in the city, is home to many cops, firefighters and other city workers.

Gardiner was brief in assessing what it would take to fight crime: “Number One: Get a new mayor.” Gardiner added it was unlikely that the 16th and 17th Police Districts could count on getting more officers, and said vocational education and non-policing responses could help reduce crime.

Challenger Marija Tomic speaks at the 45th Ward forum at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park.

Challenger Marija Tomic speaks at the 45th Ward forum at the Copernicus Center in Jefferson Park.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Tomic advocated for filling several hundred vacant police officer positions citywide, and building up staffing in Northwest Side districts.

Suh called for “streamlining” hiring to bring on more officers, and using civilians to take duties such as mental health calls and addressing the ward’s homeless population.

In an interview, Ernst noted that she has volunteered with a West Side anti-violence organization that targets residents at high-risk of being shot or shooting others.

“If people could see how those programs are working, they would be huge supporters,” she said.

Candidate Susanna Ernst speaks at the Copernicus Center earlier this month.

Candidate Susanna Ernst speaks at the Copernicus Center earlier this month.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mathias said the police department needs to look after the mental health of its own officers, and take steps to avoid the recent practice of canceling officers’ days off with little notice.

Santoyo, drew cheers from her vocal contingent of supporters, but hoots from many quarters of the packed theater when she called for reform of policing and recalled the fatal shooting of Anthony Alvarez during a 2021 foot chase.

“Cops don’t keep people safe, and they didn’t keep [Alvarez] safe,” she said. “Real funding for the people’s needs keeps us safe.”

Challenger Ana Santoyo speaks at a 45th Ward candidate forum at the Copernicus Center earlier this month.

Challenger Ana Santoyo speaks at a 45th Ward candidate forum at the Copernicus Center earlier this month.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

On economic development, Gardiner has touted major developments in the ward that he said total nearly $400 million in investments, including long-stalled construction at Six Corners. He touts the construction as the best performance of any ward in the city.

“When was the last time you heard of the 45th Ward leading anything on economic development?” he told the audience at Copernicus Center.

Mathias said she would establish a small business development center for the ward to pursue funding, and create strategic plans. Ernst said such plans already exist, and that they should be reviewed for ideas that can be implemented quickly.

Suh pointed to his experience as a longtime business owner in the ward, while Santoyo said economic growth in the ward needed to benefit low-income residents as well as developers.

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